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Published September 30, 2013, 10:53 AM

US, Japan strike import deal

The U.S. and Japan have agreed to make it easier to import each other’s organic products, the latest step in a global effort that could give consumers access to more — and cheaper — organic food.

By: Mary Clare Jalonick , Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Japan have agreed to make it easier to import each other’s organic products, the latest step in a global effort that could give consumers access to more — and cheaper — organic food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the agreement will allow organic products to be certified in one of the countries and be sold as organic in both. The agreement will allow producers to sell their products in both countries without going through the lengthy process of getting certified twice.

The agreement is similar to a 2009 deal with Canada and a 2012 deal with the European Union. Agriculture officials say they are looking at agreements with other countries — South Korea, and possibly India, Brazil and Mexico down the road — that could also make it easier for U.S. organic farmers to sell abroad.

The result could be a flow of new products to the U.S. market and higher profits for U.S. organic producers. According to USDA, the most popular organic imports from Japan are green tea, organic sakes and organic mushrooms. USDA says the Canadian agreement has increased exported organic grains to the U.S., and the European pact has increased sales of their organic wines and olive oils in the U.S.

The U.S. exports many more organics to Japan than it imports from the country, and officials say the agreement will be a boost for the burgeoning U.S. industry, one of the fastest-growing sectors of agriculture. Organics have seen sales rise around 4 to 5 percent a year and now account for more than $30 billion in annual sales.

Japan imports a wide variety of organics from the U.S., including soybeans, specialty crops such as cauliflower and nuts, and processed products such as frozen meals. Under the agreement, U.S. organic products sold there will now carry the USDA organic seal.

Annual organic sales to Japan from the U.S. now total around $80 million, and USDA estimates the new agreement could more than triple that amount to $250 million a year in the next 10 years.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the agreement will create “good jobs for Americans across the organic supply chain.”

For consumers, the agreement with Japan also should lead to lower prices and more variety, says Laura Batcha of the Organic Trade Association.

Companies that have had to pay for certification twice will no longer have to pass those costs on to consumers. Batcha says the industry is hopeful that the U.S. will work toward other such deals as foreign countries gradually adopt stricter standards for organics.

Steve Crider, international sales manager for Amy’s Kitchen, a California-based organic company that sells frozen entrees and canned soups, says his company’s sales have increased “dramatically” since the European Union market was opened up last year.

Crider says his company had not been selling very many products to Japan because it would have had to certify that every single one of the many ingredients in its products are up to Japan’s standards.

“Japan loves American products,” he says. “But it was a backwater for us because of those constraints.”

In agreeing to the deal, Japan dropped its objections to two substances allowed in U.S. organic foods that are not allowed in Japanese organic foods.

While most of the two countries’ organic standards are the same, Japan has not allowed its organics to be produced with ligonum sulfonate, a substance used in post-harvest fruit production, or alkali-extracted humic acid, a fertilizer used to help grow a variety of organic crops. The U.S, allows those substances.

Vilsack says agreements like this one are aimed at helping revitalize rural areas in the U.S. that have seen a decline in young people.

While commercial-size farming can be intimidating to young and beginning farmers, Vilsack says, many have shown interest in organics, which require less acreage, less equipment and less capital to get started.